The Maryland whiz kid sitting with Michelle Obama at SOTU

Jack Andraka holds a sensor he developed that can detect pancreatic cancer. (Photo by Jane Andraka)
Jack Andraka holds a sensor he developed that can detect pancreatic cancer. (Jane Andraka)

First Lady Michelle Obama had a number of guests sit with her to watch President Obama’s State of the Union address, and one of those was science whiz Jack Andraka, a 10th-grader at Glen Burnie’s North County High School. I wrote about him last year. Here’s the post, with a few updates:

Meet Jack Andraka, who was 14 years old (he’s all of 16 now) when he began looking for a simple way to detect early pancreatic cancer, his interest sparked by a relative’s death from the disease.

He got an idea for how it might be done while sitting in biology class at Glen Burnie’s North County High School, and then spent the next few months researching the subject, and writing a laboratory proposal. The next step was to find a mentor and a laboratory in which to work, so he contacted about 200 researchers.

“I got 197 rejections and one acceptance,” he said — but one was all he needed.

The man who said yes was Anirban Maitra, a professor of pathology and oncology at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a top researcher in pancreatic cancer.

Andraka, working with Maitra, developed a dip-stick paper sensor that tests the level of a pancreatic cancer biomarker — a protein called mesothelin — in blood or urine.

With the enthusiasm of youth, Andraka said he thinks it is a revolutionary cancer-detection method. It is faster, less expensive and more sensitive than current pancreatic cancer tests and can be used for other cancers as well.

Maitra said the test still needs work and validation, but it has done well in experiments. It did so well that Andraka, now a 10th-grader, was awarded the $75,000 grand prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last May.

“He is what you would call a genius,” Maitra said of Andraka. “He is really full of ideas. I think this kid is going to come up with something quite extraordinary in the years to come.”

Andraka was 3 when his parents got him and his brother interested in science with a six-foot-long plastic model river. But he has other interests as well: He is on a national junior kayaking team and loves to read on his Kindle.

“I just rack up those book charges,” Andraka said, adding that J.K. Rowling is his favorite author and he’s read the Harry Potter series at least five times.

In the meantime, he is awaiting a patent on his discovery and continuing to work on it.

“Everyone has the potential to be a scientist,” Andraka said. “They just have to find a passion and work for it.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 13, 2013